The Chinese, it is said, believe the divine spirit resides in the heart and that its continued maintenance is critical to the harmony of the world. It is a belief that I have faithfully followed throughout life. It is the belief that has sustained me throughout the many years of dreary study and drudgery required of a heart surgeon until that day, when an anaesthetised body, its chest exposed, awaited the first incision of the surgeon’s scalpel.
I believe mine is a divine calling, part of the invisible and impossibly thin line keeping the yin and the yang separate and together at the same time. What those of a more literary disposition might call the ‘liminal glue’ between the light and the dark. If I can allow myself this little boast, I am the best in the business. Presidents and movie stars have sought me out including the occasional Pope. There was no heart too rotten or damaged that did not improve under my expert ministrations, and if the worst came to the worst I could always replace it with a new one.
I never questioned my vocation until I met the Devil. When I say ‘meet’, I don’t mean that he rocked up to my office one day to discuss what could be done about his increasingly congested arteries. No, it wasn’t like that at all. No siree Bob! The Devil does not do referrals and consultations, submit himself to MRIs or stress tests. He does not present his private health insurance or go onto a public hospital waitlist or take a sudden interest in diets which guarantee to help you lose weight fast.
He appeared one day in emergency. A massive heart attack observed the nurse. He would need to be operated upon immediately.
In life there are turning points, detours and car crashes. There is another, lesser known category, and that is the trap door to the abyss, an irony that cannot possibly be lost on the reader. To the nurse the Devil presented himself as a respectable middle-aged family man surrounded by his loving family, but to me his face was a slide show of all the villains of history. His sobbing family grinned malevolently at my predicament. ‘Save my daddy’ they beseeched mockingly. His blue eyed spawn took my hands and his wife literally fell to her knees. Damn it if she wasn’t the picture of wholesome goodness. I bet she bled freshly baked apple pie.
‘He is an angel, but it is not his time yet. God has not called him to His side’ she wailed.
She was telling God’s honest truth and yet somehow it reeked of deception. Even the matron, hard as granite and inured to the sight of human misery, softened.
‘There, there. You’ve come to right place, and just in time’ she comforted her ’The doctor here can work miracles’.
Did no one see Hitler resting on the gurney? No hang on, Pol Pot was now giving me the finger.
Was this a test? I bet nobody in the history of mankind was ever presented with such a dilemma. If he died on the operating table would the world be rid of evil forever? Surely, the Hippocratic Oath carried a secret rider exempting me from damnation if I murdered the Devil. Until now I considered myself on the side of the angels and so I remained, if not quite the way I intended. For the first time I felt an unfamiliar tightening in my chest, my soul was revolting, and bile crept up my oesophagus as if it had grown claws. Mao Zedong helpfully proffered up a Quick-Eze to ease the discomfort.
Matron was shouting at me but my attention had zeroed into the chest cavity that housed the engine of all evil. I muttered a prayer and goddamn if Pope Alexander VI did not wink back at me.
I sleep walked into the operating theatre and found myself somehow prepped and ready to perform surgery. My heart was thundering and felt like it was going to explode. ‘Are you alright?’ asked a solicitous Pauline Nyiramasuhuko as the anaesthetist went about his preparations. Sweat was now pouring down my front. A scalpel was placed in my hand and it was poised above the Devil’s sternum when suddenly the sterile walls of the operating theatre dissolved into a sulphurous landscape. The Devil now with his hands behind his head was smiling at me in all his maleficent glory.
‘Hurry Doctor, hurry’ he chuckled grabbing his chest ‘for my hearts a burning’